QB position at UK has fascinating possibilities

Who will start for the Wildcats?

By BRIAN RICKERD/sports@state-journal.com Published:

LEXINGTON – The quarterback position for the University of Kentucky football team heading into the 2012 season is as fascinating as I can recall in some 40 years watching the Wildcats.

The list of potential starters (stars?) is well-known, outside, possibly, of freshman Jalen Whitlow of Prattville, Ala. Whitlow is not as well known, at least not around here.

The most likely starter on Sept. 2 when Kentucky opens the season at Louisville (3:30 on ESPN) is either sophomore Maxwell Smith (6-foot-4, 224) or senior Morgan Newton (6-4, 240).

The only one who might break up that duo early in the season is freshman Patrick Towles (6-5, 242), out of Highlands in Fort Thomas.

Here’s my two cents worth on the competition and some of the questions and issues that make the quarterback battle so interesting, starting, in order, from the guy I expect to see start at QB.

MAXWELL SMITH

Smith came on to start three games late in the 2011 season. The lightly recruited native of Granada Hills, Calif., was impressive for a freshman. Best of all, Smith appeared to have a good touch on the kind of short passes featured at UK over the past 10 years (it’s like the Wildcats are stuck in Hal Mumme mode).

Smith completed 84 of 153 passes (54.9 percent), with four touchdowns and four interceptions.

Smith was spotty in the spring game.

Smith appears capable of developing his long-range passing game, which would come in handy, assuming there are receivers on the roster (E.J. Fields of Frankfort seems to be one) who can get down field in a hurry to retrieve a long pass (see more on this in comments about Newton).

UK coach Joker Phillips has emphasized that the Wildcats must find some quick-strike playmakers, apparently resigned to the fact that his team is not going to be able to live on long scoring drives, especially in the Southeastern Conference.

You can’t expect 18- to 22-year olds to drive 70, 80 yards without doing something stupid, was pretty much his quote recently at the Governor’s Cup luncheon in Louisville. Pretty darned honest, I would say, at least when it comes to current UK football.

Of course, finding a kick returner who has better than 5.0 speed would help, too, but that’s another story for another day.

The other obvious plus for Maxwell Smith is that he seems to be a guy who dearly loves the game and will not be out-worked by anybody at any position. In addition, he’s a great young man who reaches out pretty much every day to every player on the team. In short, Smith is the kind of guy who should inspire his teammates to watch his back, so to speak. A leader.

My question about Smith is this: While he may be the kind of manage-the-game quarterback who could function quite well around a ton of talent, like at an Alabama or an Oklahoma, is he good enough to win with a Kentucky team that does not have that talent level? In other words, is Smith good enough to win a game, or will he be just a game manager?

MORGAN NEWTON

Newton had the starting job to open the season last year and looked to have the potential to be a Derrick Ramsey-type, with a better throwing arm. At least, that was my perception.

The fact that didn’t pan out in 2011 was not all Newton’s fault, of course. He completed 75 of 135 passes (55.6 percent) for 706 yards.

Newton showed almost zero touch on the short passes, and it seemed to be a waste of time to throw a long pass because UK so rarely sent a receiver down field.

When Newton did manage to get a pass in a receiver’s hands, all too often, the receivers dropped the ball.

Newton injured his throwing shoulder late in the season and is still not 100 percent.

“I can’t throw the ball 85 yards like I used to,” Newton said in the Lexington Herald-Leader on Saturday.

Still, Newton’s touch on the short balls is improved, and the buzz around UK camp is that Newton has a shot to regain his starting job.

A personal note about Newton: I had concerns, just based on casual impression, about his ego earlier in his career at UK. But you have to give him a lot of credit because, by all accounts, Morgan Newton has handled his lack (thus far) of dream fulfillment very very well.

PATRICK TOWLES

Barring a series of catastrophic injuries, Towles looks to be a can’t-miss college football star. He is CLEARLY UK’s best prospect at quarterback since Tim Couch. His Highlands team lost one game out of 39 on its way to three straight state championships. And while, sure, there’s plenty of talent at Highlands, for three straight years Towles was Exhibit A on the Bluebirds’ success chart.

Towles has the size, smarts, work ethic and skills needed. He can throw the long ball, he can throw the short ball, and he can command a huddle. Let’s put it this way, I saw Towles play a playoff game last winter at Lexington Catholic, and Towles only threw for some 125 yards, but it was clear to me and every one else that this guy has that elusive IT quality. I see him as a Tim Couch with a stronger arm.

And he seems to have the maturity to handle that kind of billing.

We’ll see. The question should be when, not if.

JALEN WHITLOW

Whitlow is the wild card in all of this. The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder was rated the No. 12 dual-threat quarterback in the nation and the 20th best prospect in Alabama last year. He turned away a lot of college football powers because they would not promise him a shot to play quarterback.

I’m wondering personally what both Towles and Whitlow were promised, if anything, to lure them to quarterback at Kentucky. In other words, will Whitlow be given an honest shot to win the job down the road over Towles, or will Whitlow end up with the Ryan Mossakowski award and end up somewhere else?

I’m hearing that Whitlow is a spectacular athlete, in the mode of Randall Cobb. So the obvious projection is that Whitlow will end up playing a Cobb-clone role, as a full time wide out and part time QB Wildcat. And, will he be happy with that?

One problem with all of this is that it seems that Whitlow’s talents are quite different from Towles, so you would think the UK coaches would have to design radically varying offenses for the talents of both.

WRAP UP

The key in all of this may be the continued development of Kentucky’s wide receivers. If the Wildcats can’t field wide outs with good speed and good hands, it may not matter who the QB is.

Though, again, that’s where Whitlow might deserve a look because he apparently can create something out of nothing, which has proven to be a good ability to have around UK in recent years.

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